Shape of Light: Institution as Validation

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23rd Sep 2019 Arts Reference this


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Shape of Light: Institution as Validation

‘Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art’ at Tate Modern is an exhibition that acknowledges and attempts to affirm the role of photography within the history of abstract art. It explores the medium as a response to other art forms, as well as showing the development of its individual path within the abstraction movement, throughout the last century. In a world with an exponential growth of images, an institution like the Tate has a specific responsibility. By selecting a collection of photographs to be exhibited, and through doing so also choosing which are not displayed, the Tate makes a statement about which images have the validity to be presented, and how that should be carried out. This relates not just to the confines of the gallery space, but also to the canon of the history of abstract photography. The success (or lack thereof) of this selection becomes clear through viewing the contents and structure of the exhibition.

The organisation of the exhibition into twelve rooms confines this photographic compilation into the same number of thematic groups, arranged in a chronological order. This seems to be a traditional layout employed by many large institutions, in which works are exhibited ‘in galleries devoted to different periods’ with ‘the visitor’s route leading from earlier to later periods’.[1] Each room is labelled with a title, summarising its contents, as well as being headed with a quote from an influential photographer of the investigated epoch (or in one instance, the curator). The Tate’s decision to categorise each piece of work into sequential sub-collections guides the spectator through the narrative of the relationship of photography to the abstract art movement. However, this unidirectional path imposed within the exhibition makes it both awkward and cumbersome to explore this collection in any other way. It is worth debating whether this chronological constraint is a mechanism exploited by art institutions in order to create a standardised way of approaching selected imagery within the history of abstract photography.

Conversely the first room, does not conform to this chronology. Upon entering, the viewer is instantly introduced to a number of analogies between photography and painting. This discussion is opened up with the display of Alvin Langdon Coburn’s “Vortograph” [fig. 1]. The geometrically fragmented patterns within this image were created with apparatus composed of ‘three mirrors, fastened together in the form of a triangle and resembling to a certain extent the Kaleidoscope.’[2] This image is part of a series of experiments conducted by Coburn, which were undertaken a few years after the vorticist painter Wyndham Lewis created “Workshop” [fig. 2]. Both of works explore the notion of the developing modern world, using dynamic geometry to represent the energy of the urban cityscape. The presentation of the two is married together through their aesthetic and communicative intentions, rather than their choice of medium. A considerable proportion of the exhibition follows in a similar vein: abstract photographs as a conscious or subconscious response to abstract painting. Piet Mondrian’s “Composition C (No.III.) with Red, Yellow and Blue” [fig. 3] is directly referenced to in a photograph by German Lorca. The title “Mondrian Window” clearly shows Lorca’s source of aesthetic inspiration for this piece [fig. 4]. Consequently, at the start of the exhibition journey, the Tate Modern has constrained the observer to view abstract photography as being an echoer of other, longer-established media.

Continuing through the exhibition, however, this intention seems to change. Photography is not only shown as a responsive process, but also as a form of documentation. Constantin Brancusi’s “Maiastra” [fig. 5] is displayed as a combination of the original abstracted sculpture and a photograph, allowing the viewer to consider the image as a record of the abstracted work presented before them. This comparison between original object and pictorial document implies that photography can be viewed as a way of validating previously made artworks. The image becomes a ‘visual ekphrasis – interpretive, angled, chosen, made possible by a particular circumstance’ thus could be argued as having had as many decisions involved in its creation as the original object itself. [3] Hence the display of the two together could be thought of as raising documentative photography to an equal status of the work itself. The third room of ‘Shape of Light’ is an examination of the work of Lászlo Moholy-Nagy. It provides the viewer with the concept of photography as investigator, rather than as imitator or documenter. Through the display of his works, a personal dialogue between Nagy’s painting and photography is constructed, not as responses to each other but as equal methods of working out a response to a theme: the modern city. Therefore, the prestige of photography is elevated again through the Tate’s sequential display of images. The exhibition reports its ascension as a credible abstract artform throughout the last century: a powerful statement of a medium’s validity.

It is worth querying why both curators and audiences find abstraction so appealing as an exhibition subject. It is a notion that keeps being returned to. It could be suggested that the observer obtains a certain form of pleasure from forming a relationship between what is presented and its source of aesthetic inspiration. Abstraction only makes this exercise more intricate.  David Freedberg comments on this psychological response: ‘it is the distance from or the closeness to the real that is both celebrated and fetishised within the image, even when the image/object stands at some degree of remoteness from what we recognise as real.’[4] The arrangement of descriptive labels in each room reflects this desire for the viewer to scrutinise what might be being portrayed; they are often placed in the corners, as to not distract each spectator from discovering their own solution to the works.  The photos are meant to justify themselves. What sets this investigation into abstraction apart from previous attempts is the emphasis on the distinction between the abstract process within photography compared to that within other media. Photographic abstraction relies upon exploring the real, what is directly present, and extracting the unrecognisable; ‘the image can be understood as transforming a bit of the world into pattern and form.’[5] It is the process of deriving the unfamiliar from the familiar. With a painting, the first stroke of the brush most often leaves an abstract mark: realism is instead the end goal. Hence the Tate succeeds in rationalising photography as a legitimate medium within not just abstraction, but fine art as a whole. Its identity as an individual artform is increasingly focused upon as the spectator progresses through the exhibition. 

Nonetheless, the Tate’s attempt to justify photography as a valuable component of fine art is both repetitive and over-assessed. The discussion is excessive. With work spanning twelve rooms, the Tate had the chance to encompass more within the discussion instead of reiterating what has previously been said. Taking a step back concludes in many images looking like their neighbours: small and monochromatic [fig. 6]. More colour photography could have been included, as a juxtaposition to the monotony of endless black and white. The gallery space had the chance to become more visually enticing; ‘bright colours are visually engaging to most people […] their eyes are drawn to the more brightly coloured object or area’.[6] Instead, countless non-representational images of light-based patterns dominate the exhibition, to the extent that individual imagery is repeated. Paul Strand’s “Abstraction, Porch Shadows” appears twice: once within the display of an issue of “Camera Work”, a journal compiled by Alfred Stieglitz, and again on the wall as a single image [fig. 7]; Coburn’s “Vortograph”, mentioned earlier, is also repeated in a later room. Whilst this could be a comparison between how photography has been documented versus how it has been presented, the vast expanse of exhibition space could have been used to explore more within it rather than being used to reference earlier material. As a result, the show feels like a collection of research compiled by the Tate – unrefined and unedited.

Despite the capacity for a large quantity work in this exhibition, only a small proportion of work is devoted to the digital age – the final of the twelve rooms. This seems deliberate: the physicality of the pre-digital photograph entices the spectator into the show, as ‘the fact of viewing the real thing is, in itself, intellectually pleasing for many people’.[7] The contemporary world is now swarmed with an influx of manmade images, resulting in a changing relationship to how we observe what is visually present, as ‘the invention of the camera changed the way men saw.’[8]  The irony of an exhibition of photographs is that it only produces more images as the observers record their visit through their own devices, capturing their likes, dislikes and memorable moments. But what separates the importance of these photographs from those on display? Carol Duncan claims that ‘if art objects are most properly used when contemplated as art, then the museum is the most proper setting for the, since it makes them useless for any purpose.’[9] Therefore validity of presentation of image is dependent on its artistic status. The discussion of what makes one image more worthy of study and appreciation than the other, within the Tate establishment, is hence still of imminent relevance.

‘Shape of Light’ is an exhibition which asks the spectator for their full attention. It narrates the history of photography with an emphasis on its ever-changing relationship with abstract painting and sculpture, from mimicker to documenter to rationalising it as an individually progressive artform. However, the curator seems to have used this show as an extensive display of research, due to its investigative approach to the subject matter of abstract photography. Despite this, the formal characteristics of the photographic images seem, for the larger part of the exhibition, to be repetitive and aesthetically very similar. Is this the Tate stating that only certain works are worth of wider display and scholarly study?



[fig. 1]

Alvin Langdon Coburn


1916 – 17


Thomas Walther Collection


[fig. 2]

Wyndham Lewis



Oil on canvas



[fig. 3]

Piet Mondrian

Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue


Oil on canvas

Private collection (on long term loan to Tate)

[fig. 4]

German Lorca

Mondrian Window


Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper

Museum of Modern Art


[fig. 5]

Constantin Brancusi



Bronze on limestone base



[fig. 6]

View of display in Room 8 of ‘Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art’

[fig. 7]

Paul Strand

Abstraction, Porch Shadows


Gelatin silver print

SFMOMA collection


  • Antlif, Mark and Scott W. Klein, Vorticism: New Perspective, ed. by Mark Antliff and Scott W. Klein(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • Bennet, Tony, ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’, New Formations, 4: Cultural Technologies (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1988), 73-102
  • Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, (London: BBC; Penguin, 2008)
  • Dean, David, Museum exhibition: Theory and practice (London: Routledge, 2002)
  • Duncan, Carol, ‘The Art Museum As Ritual’, The Art of Art History, ed. by Donald Preziosi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 473-85
  • Elser, Jas, ‘Art History as Ekphrasis’, Art History, Vol.33(1), ed. by James Donald, (London: Wiley, 2010), 10-27
  • Freedberg, David, ‘Context, Visuality, and the Objects of Art History’, Art Bulletin, Vol.76(3), (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1994), 394-6
  • Waldon, Scott, Photography and Philosophy: Essays on the Pencil of Nature, ed. by Scott Walden (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008)

[1] Tony Bennett, ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’, New Formations, 4: Cultural Technologies (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1998), 73-102, p. 89.

[2] Mark Antliff and Scott W. Klein, Vorticism: New Perspective, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 159.

[3] Jas Elsner, ‘Art History as Ekphrasis’, Art History, Vol.33(1), ed. by James Donald, (London: Wiley, 2010), 10-27, p. 13.

[4] David Freedberg, ‘Context, Visuality, and the Objects of Art History’, Art Bulletin, Vol.76(3), (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1994), 394-6, p395

[5]Scott Walden, Photography and Philosophy: Essays on the Pencil of Nature, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), p. 126.

[6] David Dean, Museum exhibition: Theory and practice, (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 52

[7] Dean, p. 6.

[8] John Berger, Ways of Seeing, (London: BBC; Penguin, 2008), p. 18

[9] Carol Duncan, ‘The Art Museum As Ritual’, The Art of Art History, ed. by Donald Preziosi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 473-85, p. 480.

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